Tag Archives: firefighting

Firefighting women of Portage Lake

[My father, Louis Michaud, was a local volunteer firefighter for years when I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Portage Lake, Maine. I recall that he was the fire chief for a time and was in charge of fire suppression at Pinkham Lumber Mill in nearby Nashville Plantation. He worked at the mill, first in the yard, later as the dry kiln operator and foreman, and then he was in charge of the mill’s cogeneration plant. The fire suppression job came along with the territory. And in a small town like Portage in those days, everyone came running when the siren mounted on the Town Hall sounded. It was always exciting when the siren went off, often in the middle of a family meal. He would jump from whatever he was doing and drive off in his pickup to the Town Hall to jump into the fire engine parked in the hall’s basement. While attending the California State University at Chico, I was a wildland firefighter for three fire seasons. I even considered joining the fire services as a career. What I did not seem to know – at least, not until I stumbled across a story in the town’s history, “Portage Lake: History and Hearsay – Early Years to 2009,” was that my mother, Diana (also called Diane) Michaud, also had firefighting training. Other women mentioned in the story are mothers and other relatives of my childhood friends. Bea Cormier used to cut my hair and I played with her sons throughout my adolescence and in high school sports. The story that follows is in a section of the Portage Lake history covering 1970 to 1979 and was likely written by Rachel Stevens, a local woman who also happened to be my first school teacher. Her Maine sense of humor is woven into the writing. The story is on Page 57 of the history, for those of you who have a copy, and it mentions an earlier story in The Bangor Daily News, but fails to mention the date of the story. – KM]

 FIREFIGHTING WOMEN

The Fire Department in Portage was a volunteer organization, which meant there was always a need for more people to help at fires, being willing to be trained in using the equipment and showing up at meetings. At the time, many of the men who were active in the Fire Department worked out of town and were not available during the day. If a fire broke out mid-afternoon, it had a good start by the time someone reported it and the men could get away from work, get the truck and get to the fire.

A group of women, most of them wives of firemen, decided to help. They were all in Portage during the day, so they were immediately available if there was a fire. In a Bangor Daily News article about the group, Diana Michaud said, “We felt we ought to know what to do if a fire broke out.”

Bea Cormier organized the group, which included Diana Michaud, Barbara Paradis, Grace Nason, Shirley Nason, and Avis Bass. They received training from Roger Marquis, a firefighter from Presque Isle, and learned how to operate the truck and the pump. The training included use of a respirator, resuscitator, and inhalator.

Grace Nason described with satisfaction being able to demonstrate how to pop the clutch when taking the fire truck up Hayward Hill. And they put their training to good use.

The Bangor Daily News article described a Monday morning fire when there were more women than men: “Those present have a lasting memory of Mrs. Cormier’s arrival in high boots and hair rollers with axe in hand.” In an interview, Bea, Diana, Barb and Grace agreed the training made them confident. Hearing the siren no longer seemed frightening when they knew they could do something.

Every call presented an adventure. One of the first ones occurred when the information Bea Cormier received had her taking the truck up the West Road, only to have Rena Boutot race out to stop her and tell her the fire was on the Cottage Road. Bea realized with horror that she had to turn the truck around, something she had never done. Fortunately, she was able to drive through the loop at the artesian well and reverse direction.

There was the time they responded to a fire at a camp. A 100-pound propane tank in a shed blew as they were arriving, going straight up and straight down. They were all shaken, but went on setting up. Diana went back for the Jeep, the men arrived and they put out the fire.

On their way to a possible drowning on the West Road, Diana’s car hit a low branch, but she never stopped. When she came home, however, she found her spaghetti sauce burned and the house full of smoke.

This group of women provided a useful service, and was an important part of the Fire Department. They were able to get equipment to a fire and have it ready to work when more helped arrived. Because of what they did, property was saved and less damage occurred.

Ol’ smoke eater, news hound suspects grass fire, finds none

My father was part of the volunteer fire department in Portage when I was a child and I’m pretty sure for a time he was the fire chief, but I could be wrong about that.

He also was in charge of fire protection at the lumber mill where he worked. I remember him running out of the house if the fire whistle in the middle of town sounded or if he received a call from the mill that something or other had caught fire. I also recall going to the mill with him one winter day and him using a frontend loader to mix snow into a waste wood pile that had caught fire by spontaneous combustion.

And given that I spent three summers humping up and down the Sierra Nevada and its foothills breathing in smoke and dirt as part of a firefighting hand crew, it is a bit surprising – at least to me – that I did not make firefighting my life’s work.

In all honesty, however, it sort of was my life’s work since as a reporter I spent much time chasing fire engines and ladder trucks and ambulances while covering cops, crime and chaos.

But I haven’t covered a roadside grassfire or a wildland fire in quite some time.

I was sitting on my balcony the other day reading a Stephen King novel – what Mainer hasn’t read at least one of King’s novels? – when I noticed a rice-paper delicate speck floating into my view. It was the size of a dandruff flake, really.

Then I noticed a dozen or so more drifting over the apartment from the west.

My first thought was “ash” and “fire.” OK, my first two thoughts.

I sniffed the air, but did not detect smoke, so I didn’t panic.

But I did briefly think back to the wind-driven Quail Lakes fire in Stockton during June 2008 in which dozens of families were forced to flee from their homes because of a roadside fire that spread into a condominium complex and a neighborhood, destroying homes and other property. It was truly devastating and I wasn’t planning to go through what those families were forced to endure.

I made a quick mental checklist – computer, change of clothing, get the car out of the gated underground garage – should smoke begin to bellow over the apartment from points west.

I took a quick look out the front door and spotted no browning of the air and smelled no smoke and went back to reading the novel.

More rice-paper ash – my guess was that it had to be from a grass fire perhaps along Interstate 5 that bisects Stockton – floated over the apartment and in to my view. And I noticed a slight browning of the air, even though I could not smell smoke.

I heard no sirens so I figured the fire had to be some distance away, especially since I could not smell smoke.

Giving in to the instincts of the ol’ fire-eater and news hound in me, I decided to hop in the CRV and take a look. After all, if I planned to blog about it, I surely needed to find the fire.

Or not.

I drove around the neighborhood to the west of my apartment for 30 minutes or more and never found fire or smoke. Frankly, Stockton has a pretty good fire department and firefighters are quick to jump on roadside fires. They are not interested in reliving the Quail Lakes fire.

Grass fires don’t normally make it into the local paper. This one didn’t either or I would have added a few more details.

Ah, well, nothing but a couple flakes of ash, a slight browning of the sky, and fruitless evening drive in search of a grass fire. It could have been a much more exciting evening.

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Nation’s first forest fire tower built in Maine

OK, I have a special reason to like today’s DownEast.com trivia question. Two of them, actually.

When I was a kid there was a Disney TV movie, “Fire on Kelly Mountain” (1973), in which Larry Wilcox played a young guy who works in a forest fire lookout tower, becomes bored, and ends up fighting a lightning strike.

And because I ended up being a wildland firefighter for three summers while attending college in Chico, California.

Where was the country’s first forest fire lookout tower built?

Answer:

In 1905, on Squaw Mountain, since renamed Big Moose Mountain.

Big Moose Mountain is in Piscataquis County, Maine, by the way. It’s near Moosehead Lake.